Cocktails enjoy a spirited comeback

Cocktail designers Christy Pope and Chad Solomon.

Our Seth Doane has discovered a new generation of bartenders reviving an old favorite:

Welcome to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, where 3,000 beverage enthusiasts sampled 44,000 cocktail concoctions.

"We had to deplete the entire tri-state inventory of glassware in order to make this event happen," said Lesley Townsend.

"Cocktail caterers" Christy Pope and Chad Solomon were serving up their twist on a mint julep - made with apple brandy.

"It contains a couple of unique ingredients, like tincture of coriander, fresh mint," explained Solomon. "A little malic acid to point it up, and then a date molasses as a sweetener."

All these garnishes and aromatics, as they're called, almost upstage the alcohol. Sage, peppers, basil - it's almost like a little salad bar.

"Cocktails today incorporate all kinds of fresh ingredients," said Pope: "Herbal, fruit, spices, you name it."

Chad and Christy reject the trendy title "mixologists," but they do represent the next generation of bartenders - while folks like Dale Degroff (who is called the grandfather of the cocktail revolution) are considered masters of the craft.

Degroff says the cocktail is America's first culinary art form: "We took the European traditions of punch and everything, and we extrapolated back into a single glass, a single composite ingredient called a cocktail."

Degroff marvels at how long it's taken Americans to demand more from their drinks, considering the foodie revolution is two decades old.

"You can have a piece of fish from Australia cooked in butter from France with some sea salt from Hawaii and a little yuzu juice from Japan - and you're telling me that we can't have fresh lime in our margarita? I think we can!" Degroff laughed.

Recognizing a growing demand for "craft" cocktails, Chad Solomon and Christy Pope started a business called Cuffs and Buttons to develop new drinks for restaurants and hotels.

So we presented them with a unique challenge: Could they concoct a signature drink for something as abstract as a TV broadcast? Say, "Sunday Morning"?

They began brewing up ideas for the "Sunday Morning" cocktail in the duo's "laboratory" (their Brooklyn apartment), which houses more than a thousand spirits.

Possible ingredients: citrus juice - grapefruit, orange - are classic breakfast flavors. Maple syrup, honey, eggs.

They use not just spirits, but essential oils like black pepper, bitter orange and ginger.

Creating a cocktail, they say, is equal parts taste, aroma and appearance. And it can take dozens of hours to develop. So, we left them to it . . .

Historian Dave Wondrich knows his cocktails: "Bartenders are making all kinds of hand-made ingredients. They're infusing their own vermouth, they're making their own bitters."

We first met Wondrich in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, a sort of world's fair of the spirits world.

He says cocktail culture has come a long way: "Prohibition really almost killed the cocktail. In the 30 years before prohibition, the cocktail had reached this high state of art with highly-skilled bartenders using ingredients from all over the world mixed in careful proportion, making these artisanal lovely drinks."

Prohibition, when alcohol was outlawed, made it not only difficult to get liquor, but the art of tending bar was "diluted."